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Matt Ingram - Shutting Up Cedric

Shutting up Cedric

As musicians, whenever we sit down to play we continually assess our performance. There is a part of our brain that acts like a real time running commentary that let’s us know how we are doing. Sometimes this voice is positive, though a lot of the time it exists to negatively judge what we are doing. “You’re slowing down” and “Oh nice fill dick-head” are, at least in my head a few of its’ favourite phrases. Tuning out such unwanted brain traffic can seem like a psychological impossibility, for example how do you not think of a bright blue polar bear wearing a tutu having just read this sentence?

This voice in our heads, and for the sake of this article let’s call him Cedric, is a symptom of our insecurities that manifests itself into this continually chattering inner critic. The more anxious we feel as musicians, the more domineering his voice becomes and consequently the more difficult he is to tune out. Once this process gains momentum it can become a downward spiral of thought that’s a troublesome process to reverse.

In my career as a musician I, like many others, have at times have done battle with critics like Cedric who always seems to arrive uninvited, and at the worst possible moment. I believe that a large part of our evolution as players is addressing these more cerebral elements of performance anxiety that tend to affect most of us from time to time.

A good first step in silencing this inner voice is to acknowledge this fact; he is very rarely correct. Cedric, like us, is not always the best judge. Most musicians, and I include myself in the list, are very poor judges of their own performance (and I’ve realised that is the main reason that producers exist). How many times have you been to a gig, been blown away and then after spoken to one of the performers who is genuinely mortified at what he or she is convinced was an utter horror show? Conversely, how many times have you finished what was in your head a great gig, only to talk after with your friend/wife/regular attendee who far preferred the gig last week in that venue where you couldn’t hear the bass and kept dropping your sticks?

Recording musicians at my studio have given me a greater insight into peoples’ perceptions of their own playing. Musicians often let the emotion of a performance inform their view of it, often without even having heard it back! I have seen many artists abandon a performance mid-way through what is a burning take because they have paid too much attention to negative thoughts they are having about it. Just because it feels bad for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad take and I feel as a drummer it is both unprofessional and somewhat egotistical to disregard a take mid way through on the basis that “I’m just not feeling it.” I’m continually amazed at how often individuals, myself included, end up either going with takes they felt were bad and scrapping the ones they initially felt great about.

I had a great lesson in subtleties of performance analysis whilst recording Laura Marling’s third album A Creature I Don’t Know. This record, produced by Ethan Johns was recorded live in one room with little in the way of additional overdubs. For both Ethan and Laura this record was about capturing the honest essence of something and was recorded directly to tape without the aid of any modern editing techniques. Therefore it was essential that all the musicians listened to one another and reacted appropriately to one another’s performance, which would vary greatly from take to take.

We were tracking a song called The Beast, which as the title suggests is a brooding, heavy tale concerning the bitterness of lost romance. You can listen to it here  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb0yCaX_xKs

My initial idea for this song was a kind of rolling, tribal groove played with mallets on the toms. After the first take of trying this both Ethan and Laura agreed that what I was playing wasn’t heavy enough and suggested doing another in which I, “try some stuff out with sticks”. So I did. The next take, as far as I was concerned involved me just messing around. I tried out several ideas and made a lot of mistakes, which Cedric gleefully pointed out. At the end of it Ethan looked up and said “That’s the one.” I was horrified. I far as I was concerned I’d just smashed though this song like a wounded elephant. I didn’t have a part together, it was just this stream of unrelated, bad ideas that I felt needed massive refinement. For the next week in the studio I couldn’t bear listening back to it and leaned on Ethan pretty hard whom after a week of me saying, “Are you sure about this?” turned round and told me that I needed to stop listening to myself and start listening to the music and performance as a whole. That’s what matters.

This, coming from someone I greatly respect came as a huge revelation to me. Of course, no one is going to buy this record based upon how I feel about my drumming performance. The take was not what I intended to do, but the artists and producer loved it and felt that what I played had the appropriate emotion for the song.

Now when I listen back to that song I haven’t quite tamed all of my performance insecurities but that I feel is only natural. When have you ever listened back to anything you’ve done and thought, “Yeah I’d file that next to any of histories great drum takes?” What I do hear now that I didn’t at the time, is that the take has a certain abandon to it that seems to suit it’s wild nature. I guess the main difference is that I’ll always read the term “abandon” as “I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing” whereas others read that as a certain empathy for the material. In this case as the drummer on the record it wasn’t for me to decide and I have to be happy that the artist and producer were happy with the performance, which all we can ever hope to do.

This raises the point that perhaps it’s not at all up to us to judge what we do. Perhaps the whole purpose of our art as musicians is to cast what we do into the ether and let others decide its merits, just as we decide the music we consume and choose to like?

I feel that to pay too much attention to our inner Cedrics is in its way a kind of indulgence. As I’ve discussed in previous articles that to play the drums is about being a part of something that’s larger than what YOU are doing. Your inner voice only judges your performance, and to only pay attention to what he saying is akin to just listening to yourself. Focusing your attention on what else is happening in the music and listening to your collaborators opinions can be the most powerful weapon in the battle against him.

Many books have been written about this subject and if you wish to read further a good place to start would be The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, though for me I feel that “Shut Up Cedric, You’re Talking Shit” would be a better title.

Matt Ingram

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